Were you one of the true believers who tipped an Eels victory over the Panthers?
Such faith defied the team’s awful result against the Cowboys and the demands of playing four games over just 18 days. Expecting a win against the undefeated premiers, on their home turf, was surely illogical.
Consequently, the question of the team’s head space, the value of taking games to Darwin, and the finalisation of the Eels roster are at the forefront of my thoughts this week.
There were also some interesting takes to come out of that Panthers clash, including a gang tackle technique and the actions of one of Penrith’s more controversial players.
Staying with that game, a particular conversion attempt from Mitch Moses attracted the attention of some supporters so that too is up for discussion.
Are you ready for a carry? Bumpers up!
Playing Those Mind Games Together
Like it or not, the proof of “headspace” being the final frontier for the Eels has surely been provided by the last month of football.
The fluctuating form from the Tigers, Knights, Cowboys and Panthers clashes has had pundits one moment writing off Parra’s chances and then nek minnit installing them as genuine contenders.
One of the more extraordinary features of the poorer performances is how many players have been below their best in such matches. When the team is “off”, it’s almost across the entire side. Lost possession, missed tackles, ill discipline – the errors seem to be shared equally and that’s not a beautiful thing.
The positive was that virtually every player rose to the occasion against the Panthers. Having all players fulfil their role is not unusual in any impressive victory, but in this instance it provided more evidence of Parra’s mind guerillas at work. Change towards achieving potential is there, but it’s an ongoing battle.
If any of us had the answer to Parra’s fluctuating form, we’d probably be on staff and on good coin.
What we do know is that at their best, the Eels now have the capacity to beat the leading premiership contenders. This opinion isn’t based on one off performances. The trend against the Storm and Panthers is there for all to see.
Should the Eels succeed in narrowing the gap between their best and their worst, then all of us will have genuine cause to believe that a premiership is finally within reach.
I’ve waited for the dust to settle before offering a deeper dive into the Eels trip to Darwin.
Firstly, there are no excuses for what we witnessed from the team. The Eels were awful. The Cowboys were outstanding.
With that made clear, my main take is that the partnership needs to be reviewed.
Undeniably, there are numerous positives in partnering with the Northern Territory Government for an annual match. It’s commercially rewarding for both parties, and there’s plenty of goodwill as well as differences made by the community visits.
That aside, the Eels are in the football business. On field success drives greater commercial success.
This places the club at the crossroads regarding the value of this annual trip.
Three of the Eels last five clashes have involved the Cowboys. The only losses suffered by the Eels in Darwin came in two of those matches. A glance at the scoreboard from those defeats reveals similar results – 32 to 6 and 35 to 4.
That’s no surprise. As Cowboys winger Kyle Feldt stated after the match, “it felt like a home game.”
Why wouldn’t it? The warm humid conditions are similar to Townsville and the local supporters clearly have an affinity for the closest NRL team.
Does it seem like the NRL are possibly locking in the Cowboys as the annual opponent?
That would be easy to say, but it’s not so simple.
There are many stakeholders when it comes to the draw. The NRL and the broadcasters have their say. Likewise, the NT Government and Parra would be putting forward their preferences.
It’s obvious that the Eels would prefer a non-Sydney opponent. The interstate and regional teams bring fewer fans to CommBank Stadium, whereas local metro opponents increase the likelihood of large crowds at Parra’s home base.
A quick run through of the eight matches in Darwin reveals only one match against a Sydney team – the Panthers in 2015.
Outside of that, the Eels have played the Cowboys three times, the Raiders twice, and the Broncos and the Titans once each.
It doesn’t take Einstein to work out that the NT Government would prefer matches against Queensland teams. The fixture wouldn’t just draw travelling Eels fans. Travel is more convenient for banana benders and there’d be stronger local interest. The NRL and broadcasters would probably be on board with that too.
Though a commercial partnership like the one with the Northern Territory is clearly too good to pass up, what cost is the club prepared to pay?
The conditions are sapping for the players. Sweat was pouring off them from the opening whistle and the Eels fatigued badly in the final minutes of the game.
No other team would be as suited to playing at TIO Stadium as the Cowboys are. We should expect better performances from our Eels, but why make their task tougher by literally taking a home game to an opponents back yard?
The Cowboys are now over represented in the list of opponents at this venue, even factoring in the preferences of stakeholders. A Cowboys team on the rise is arguably the least preferred team for the Eels to draw in Darwin.
And given that Parra are in the business of football, if they are regularly placed in a scenario which makes it more difficult for the team to secure two premiership points, then maybe the arrangement needs to be reviewed.
Over the years, the Storm have been the “innovators” of tackling techniques. From the early stages of the wrestle through to the various techniques introduced, other teams would always be playing catch up.
Wider application of such techniques across the NRL would ultimately lead to injuries and rules would be changed to outlaw said tackles. But Melbourne had that uncanny ability to stay one step ahead in finding something new.
The Panthers have become masters of SLAC – Stop, Lift And Carry.
This method is at maximum effectiveness deep in the opponent’s half. Multiple Penrith defenders stop the ball runner, lift them, then carry/drag them back up to ten metres.
At the moment, SLAC allows the Panthers to win the territorial advantage as their opponents struggle to get beyond the 30 metre line before kicking. It’s a huge reason that Penrith have conceded an average of just 12 points per game.
The tackle is permitted because the ball carrier isn’t quite lifted off his feet. However, the ball carrier is clearly put into the position where he has no traction and is completely overpowered.
Given its “legality”, other teams will be sure to adopt it sooner rather than later. I can envisage certain scenarios eventuating.
Firstly, the risk of injury will be greater as more players will be subjected to this tackle by teams attempting a quick copy. And it is dangerous as ball carriers are put into awkward positions and driven backwards with the weight of multiple defenders on them.
Referees will then be under increasing pressure to make a quicker call of held, a consequence that would possibly impact second phase football.
Finally, it will all become a mess and the tackle will be outlawed. Sounds familiar doesn’t it!
But my concern runs deeper than any familiar pattern.
It’s patently clear that this is a drilled tackle, and to have this as an organised tactic could threaten the fabric of the game. The SLAC method might provide fuel to the fire for proponents of limiting the number of defenders in a tackle to two.
I won’t begin to dive into the ramifications of trying to limit the number of defenders in a tackle – other than to say heaven help the NRL if they ever tried to adopt such a rule.
Penrith’s Weak Link?
Penrith should have lost no admirers from their loss to the Eels. The key to their success is their on-field leadership and football intelligence, with Cleary and Yeo two of the smartest and most focussed players running around.
They transition with near perfection between structured and unstructured footy, and the exuberance of the younger players sees them willing to back themselves to score from anywhere on the field.
If they have one weakness, I believe it is the poor discipline of Jarome Luai. I don’t like to single out a player for criticism, but his deliberate actions are worthy of a spotlight.
Luai’s off the ball interference on Mitch Moses in last year’s final should have been penalised. It should have also resulted in a stint in the sin bin and potentially a finals exit for his team.
On Friday night he decided to target Reed Mahoney. His first half rag doll tackle and throw on Mahoney after the Eels hooker had passed the ball was penalised, but only because of Reed’s reaction.
Later in the second half, Luai got away with pushing and rubbing Mahoney’s head into the turf as Reed attempted to get up to play the ball. It could easily have brought a set restart call.
Such tactics stand out in a quality side such as Penrith. They don’t need it, and should Luai continue down this path, it could come at a cost in a big match.
The Panthers five-eighth has been fortunate thus far, but his actions won’t go undetected by on-field officials for much longer.
Finalising The Roster
The Eels have moved cautiously in finalising their top 30 this season, with only 28 spots filled.
NRL rules stipulate that a minimum of 28 players must be named by March 1, but clubs have until the first Monday in August to list their last two additions to the roster.
From next week (Round 11), clubs can select any development contract or second tier contracted players.
Given the Eels recent difficulties in fielding outside backs, it will be interesting to see whether the club moves any time soon to secure external recruits.
The imminent return of a number of players lessens the pressure placed on the roster, and probably buys more time for the club to wait to see which players become available.
Parra signalled that intention by not elevating any players outside the top 30 into the NRL squad. I supported that decision as every player becomes available come round 11.
Are there any outside backs currently available that have attracted serious interest from the Eels?
If there are any players that the Eels could secure, every passing week presents an increasing opportunity cost.
Firstly, other clubs could become involved in the battle for a signature, increasing competition and possibly price. Secondly, the later a player is added, the more challenging it is to settle into the team, build combinations and learn plays.
Go now or wait? I guess we have to watch this space.
Also On The Watch List
In recent years, I’ve noticed that players are often taking their conversion kicks much wider than the spot where the ball was forced for the try.
It happens with enough frequency across the NRL for myself and others to notice, and more recently I’ve had fellow supporters highlighting examples involving the Eels.
One such example occurred on Friday night.
Clint Gutherson scored the Eels first try about a metre or so in from the corner.
When the conversion kick was taken by Moses, the ball was placed just inside the touch line. In this instance, the kick was taken only about half a metre wider, but that could make all the difference.
We aren’t aware whether this was the result of the match official indicating the wrong spot or whether Moses prefers to take the wide kicks close to the sideline as some sort of practiced reference point.
Maybe this is something to monitor across Magic Round.